District 9 (Part Two): Out of Afrofuturism?

Last time, I focused on District 9 as adopting and expanding some core strategies of transmedia branding, linking it to True Blood, Cloverfield, and the granddaddy of them all, The Blair Witch Project. I should note that about the same time that post went live, friend and Convergence Culture Consortium consultant Grant McCracken posted an interesting provocation about what's behind the success of this season of True Blood. I also should point you to the early "Save the Date" Announcement for this year's Futures of Entertainment conference which went live yesterday: an entire day of the event will be focused around issues of transmedia entertainment. This is an event you will not want to miss.

Today, I am coming at District 9 from a somewhat different angle, suggesting that it might best be understood as borrowing from and contributing to a larger tradition of Afrofuturist science fiction. You could understand the last installment without confronting any spoilers. This time I need to deal with the larger story structure of the film so there are spoilers galore. So read at your own risk if you have not seen District 9.

Over the past decade or so, there has been an emerging body of criticism and theory around the concept of "Afrofuturism." For a good introduction to this concept, check out the Afrofuturism website or watch John Akomfrah's 1996 documentary, Last Angel of History, which traces the emergence of Afrofuturist concepts through science fiction and popular music of a much earlier vintage. For other good discussions of Afrofuturism, check out the special issue of Social Text which Alondra Nelson edited in 2001. Here's a decent short definition of Afrofuturism, taken from the Afrofuturism home page:

Once upon a time, in the not so distant past, music writers and cultural critics like Mark Dery, Greg Tate, Mark Sinker and Tricia Rose brought science fiction themes in the works of important and innovative cultural producers to our attention. They claimed that these works simultaneously referenced a past of abduction, displacement and alien-nation, and inspired technical and creative innovations in the work of such artists as Lee "Scratch" Perry, George Clinton and Sun Ra. Science fiction was a recurring motif in the music of these artists, they argued, because it was an apt metaphor for black life and history.

Now a new generation of AfroFuturists are exploring these themes in a variety of genres: DJs Spooky and Singe in music and digital culture, Fatimah Tuggar and Keith Piper in the visual arts, Kodwo Eshun in music criticism, McLean Greaves in cyberspace, and Nalo Hopkinson in speculative fiction.

Are recurring futurist themes in these different genres just coincidences? Are they aesthetic a/effects of our millennial moment? Or have futurism and science fiction become the most effective way to talk about black experiences? How do these themes refer to the history of the African diaspora, yet imagine possible futures, futures that enable a broad range of cultural expression and an ever-widening definition of "blackness?"

Afrofuturism offers us a fascinating way of thinking about how the themes of science fiction emerge across a range of different arts, including music, rather than remaining in the space of literary, filmic, and television science fiction which have traditionally been dominated by us white guys. And as the images of science fiction circulated through those channels, they took on new shapes and meanings, becoming a set of metaphors for thinking about issues such as slavery and cultural oppression. In many cases, the alien became the vehicle through which oppressed people represent that have protected and enforced the values of the status qou. As these images took shape, they drew new artists to science fiction -- including a growing number of artists of color -- who brought these themes back into science fiction literature. A smaller number of films -- most famously Brother From Another Planet -- consciously contribute to Afro-Futurism.

It is an open question whether District 9 can be called, in the strictest sense, an "Afrofuturist" work. One way of understanding Afrofuturism would be race-neutral, refering to the deployment of a set of metaphors drawn from the realm of science fiction to understand the history and future of race relations (or conversely the borrowing of concepts from the history of race relations to envision how we would deal with other forms of difference and diversity). Many of the works most often cited as Afrofuturist texts fall into this category, including often-cited parallels to District 9 such as Alien Nation and the Planet of the Apes cycle.

Yet, in so far as the Afrofuturism movement has also functioned to call attention to the future of blackness or the responses of black artists to new tehcnology, then we might say that District 9 appropriates an Afrocentric movement and repackages it for a "mainstream" (i.e. majority-dominated) marketplace.

Clearly, as a South African born artist, Blomkamp has much to contribute to our understanding of the mechanisms of apartheid and how its structures and ideologies might return should we confront alien visitors. Blomkamp has been explicit about the links between District 9 and his experiences growing up in South Africa:

It all had a huge impact on me: the white government and the paramilitary police -- the oppressive, iron-fisted military environment. Blacks, for the most part, were kept separate from whites. And where there was overlap, there were very clearly delineated hierarchies of where people were allowed to go.Those ideas wound up in every pixel in District 9.(LA Times)

District 9 is clearly intended to shock us out of our preconceptions about South Africa (and for that matter, about what kind of society might be central to a science fiction drama). Blumkamp wants to get past some of the defense mechanisms that have emerged through previous discussion of the conditions of segregation and poverty that have shaped the recent history of his country by telling that story through a different lens. Blomkamp displaces discussions of race onto aliens much as Art Spigelman's Maus displaced discussions of the death camps onto mice, cats, and pigs Blomkamp has every right to make such a film. Yet, it would have been nice if he had also connected his work to this larger conversation about the intersection of race and technology. Discussions of the film have rarely acknowledged the larger Afrofuturist tradition, though again Hollywood in general has rarely acknowledged its borrowings from literary science fiction.

District 9 seeks to construct a science fiction narrative which isn't about the global powers that dominate most work in the genre. It purposefully doesn't deal with what the Americans, the Brits, the Japanese, the Russians, or the Chinese are doing while aliens are visiting South Africa. True enough, Multinational United is a global organization but we see MNU embodied in the film through characters who come from South Africa. There's something really powerful about making the peripheral central, about dewesternizing science fiction. Again, a growing body of science fiction literature has made this move along time ago imagining the future from the perspectives of Eastern Europe, India, Brazil, African countries, the Arab World, Jamaica, and so forth. I picked up a recent catalog of science fiction books and was blown away by how many of them were set in the developing world as people seek ways to acknowledge a future which will not be simply an expansion of Americanism across the universe. For an excellent sampler that explores the relations between science fiction and postcolonialism, you might pick up a copy of Naola Hopkinson's So Long Been Dreaming:

So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasyis an anthology of original new stories by leading African, Asian, South Asian and Aboriginal authors, as well as North American and British writers of color.

Stories of imagined futures abound in Western writing. Writer and editor Nalo Hopkinson notes that the science fiction/fantasy genre "speaks so much about the experience of being alienated but contains so little writing by alienated people themselves."It's an oversight that Hopkinson and Mehan aim to correct with this anthology.

The book depicts imagined futures from the perspectives of writers associated with what might loosely be termed the "third world."It includes stories that are bold, imaginative, edgy; stories that are centered in the worlds of the "developing"nations; stories that dare to dream what we might develop into.

The wealth of postcolonial literature has included many who have written insightfully about their pasts and presents. With So Long Been Dreaming they creatively address their futures.

Contributors include: Opal Palmer Adisa, Tobias Buckell, Wayde Compton, Hiromi Goto, Andrea Hairston, Tamai Kobayashi, Karin Lowachee, devorah major, Carole McDonnell, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Eden Robinson, Nisi Shawl, Vandana Singh, Sheree Renee Thomas and Greg Van Eekhou

So far, film and television has lagged behind print science fiction in embracing this more global perspective -- reflecting a fear that western viewers won't be interested in a film set primarily in the developing world. So District 9 does important work in bringing this perspective to the screen.

Yet, this exclusion of first and second world powers in the film also poses questions about power relationships. It is hard to imagine, given what we learn in District 9 about the ways that the international arms industry wants to acquire access to the alien weapons, that the Americans and the other super-powers would simply step aside and let the Africans exert this level of self determination.

That said, we also have to note that District 9 falls into several of the traps critics have noted in other representations of the future of race relations in mainstream science fiction films. First, there is an over-arching logic of the film: we move from alienation from to identification with the "prawns" . The disturbing opening scenes really make them seem sub-human. The design of the aliens make them look like insects and crustaceans, neither of which typically engender compassionate or sympathetic responses. And their actions are beastial as they gnaw into meet or clammer through trash heaps. Only their eyes hint at something more soulful underneath their shells.

As the film goes forward, though, we are moved to critique the human population's treatment of the aliens. So far, so good. But in order for this to happen, two things have to occur: we have to stress the "inhuman" qualities of the human characters (through depictions of their baser motives) and we have to reveal the "human" characteristics of the nonhuman characters -- for example through the film's representation of the "Prawn" protagonist as a caring father and a loyal friend. In short, the emotional power of the film depends on a logic of assimilation: we can care about the aliens because they are more like us than we initially thought. And it depends on a logic of liberal guilt - we should care about the aliens because after all, we are treating them much as we've treated other underclasses in the past.

For me, the most disturbing moment in the film comes when Wikus, our central human character uses a flame thrower to exterminate a nest of alien eggs, laughing and bragging that they explode like "popcorn" when exposed to heat. Given what we learn later about their family attachments, it is hard to redeem the character who was responsible for this genocidal act. There is no moment of self recognition where Wikus fully acknowledges what he has done. He mostly pursues his own self interests and has only a few moments where he recognizes the stakes for the "Prawn" and aids their cause.

You can read the main "Prawn" character as the alien version of the "magic negro" found in so many contemporary Hollywood films. Hollywood believes we can tell the story of oppressed people only through the lens of more sympathetic members of the dominant group. And often, this means that the oppressed people become sympathetic to us through their mentoring and assistance to the white protagonists. District 9 is more complicated than this largely because its human protagonist doesn't ever really develop full consciousness and by the end, we understand the alien character more than he does. We start to value the alien's motivates and needs above his in the process. This is no Dances With Wolves where the white man becomes a better Indian than the "redskins" and takes over leadership of the tribe. By the end of the film, Wikus is still totally outside the alien community, but has just had a glimmer of what it's plight might look like.

The second trap, such films often to portray people of color as part of the system of oppression. So, here, we see how the Nigerians exploit the "Prawns", we see black Africans in the man on the street segments justifying the segregation or deportation of the aliens, and we see black authority figures who are part of the state apparatus working to contain and relocate the "prawn." All of this suggests that blacks would have behaved no differently than whites did if they were in a position of authority in Apartheid South Africa. It makes oppression a basic element of human nature and thus erases some of the moral culpability of previous generations for their racism. Here, again, though, the film does hint at the unequal status of whites and blacks within MNU through, for example, a scene suggesting that a black recruit is not being given the same body armor as the whites in the same expedition party.

Here's hoping these observations spark greater discussion. I suspect many of you will disagree with my criticisms of the film. I fully expect to be called "politically correct" which is the language we use to deflect honest discussions about the impact of race and racism upon culture.. District 9's cultural importance is that it provides us with new resources through which to reflect on the history and future of race relations in our world. I am not asking that the film be "politically correct": for me, it is enough that it provokes reflections, encourages conversations, and forces us to think more deeply about the world around us. Part of that discussion should resolve around lingering racial assumptions even in works which are otherwise progressive in their goals. Let me return to what I said in my opening of this two part series: District 9 is a very important film, perhaps the best released so far this year, and will make a lasting contribution to how we think about science fiction in screen-based media. But it did not "come out of nowhere" and we will understand it better if we situate it in a larger historical context.